Rajeev Dhavan entered the legal profession late. Educated in Allahabad, Cambridge and London Universities, he was called to the Bar in Allahabad and to the Middle Temple, London. Like his father, he was President of the Cambridge Union and the individual debating champion of England, Wales and Ireland. But his first love in Allahabad was theatre, having produced, directed and acted in full length plays, modern and Shakespearean.
Circumstances pushed him into twenty years of law teaching in Queens, Belfast, London and West London Universities, with visiting assignments in Madison, Wisconsin, Austin Texas, University of Melbourne, Delhi University and the Indian Law Institute, where he is an Honorary Professor. He wrote a number of books: The Supreme Court of India (1977), still considered a classic, and others including the Supreme Court and Parliamentary Sovereignty (1976), The Supreme Court under Strain: The Challenge of Arrears (1979), Litigation Explosion in India (1982), Selection and Appointment of Judge: A case study (1979), Justice on Trial: The Supreme Court Today (1980). He co-edited a collection of essays in honour of Justice Krishna Iyer, Judges and the Judicial Poser (1984), and was part of the team which edited, Supreme But not Infallible (2000). He also edited, with J. Cooper, Public Interest Law (in England) in 1986.
After editing a conference record, Black People in Britain, The Way Forward (1975), he turned his interest to the law of the press, resulting in the edited (with C. Davies) Censorship and Obscenity (1978), Only the Good News: On the Law of the Press in India (1987), Contempt of Court and the Press (1982) and Publish and be Dammed (2010). His interest in affirmative action led him to edit and provide a long introduction to Marc Galanter’s, Law and Society in India. Along with articles in the Modern Law Review and The Amercian Journal of Comparative Law, these are authoritative works in recognizing the paradigm shifts in Indian research. He ran the Indian Government’s Legal Aid Committee in the early 1980’s to present a trend of ideas which were not implemented due to ineptitude and lack of resources.
He sometimes wonders how and why he joined the Supreme Court in 1992 at the age of 46.
Back in India, he wrote for newspapers as a columnist with around 800 newspaper articles to his credit. This adds to the hundred odd substantial articles in edited books and law reviews. He anchored 25 episodes of a TV programme. He took over from Fali Nariman as Commissioner in the International Commission of Jurists (ICL). Geneva. His work with the ICJ, the Forum of Federations and on Refugee Law took him on missions to Malaysia, Malawi, Iraq, Damascus, Japan, Fiji, Kenya, Argentina, Nepal, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. He was made in an honorary member for life by the ICJ.
After his arguments in the Mandal (1992) and Babri Masjid (1994) cases, he was designated as a Senior Advocate by the Supreme Court in 1995. He used to say: “Winning a few odd cases does not make you a marketable lawyer. you still end up eating your chappatis in the lawn.” His initial interest was in public interest law. A flurry of cases followed: Banwasi Sewa Ashram, Sariska, the Wild Ass Sanctuary case, the Pench Cases, Nagarhole, Rathong Chu in Sikkim, the Omkareshwar daru case, the Noyyil River case, the North East Armed Forces Act case and a range of others. He was amicus to the Court in over two dozen cases, including the police attack on the ‘Ram Deo’ meeting and the march of Gujjars towards Delhi causing damage to public property. In the Mandal case (1992), he supported reservations, but turned against its mindless excesses for vote banks. His later arguments on reservation, quotes and preferences in various cases emphasized this. Amongst those of others, his arguments led to constitutional amendments, culminating in the Nagraj case, which he also argued and which put caps on excessive reservation for jobs in public administration and the public sector. He answered his critics with a masterly account of how Parliament debated reservations in his book Reserved (2008).
Seeing the divide between the rich and poor, empowered and dis-empowered, as the greatest challenge to the Republic, he believes in an inclusive Constitution.
Soon, he became known as a lawyer working on all aspects of the working of the Constitution, the regulatory state, and civil and criminal issues. He argued and wrote opinions and submissions for hundreds of cases, all neatly bound in his library. His knowledge of constitutional, and all forms of public law, is immense, his eloquence and clarity exemplary. His work took him to virtually every High Court in India. His interest in governance led him to make submission to the Parliament on many occasions, using his newspaper articles for further critique. He will be remembered as a lawyer for his insights and actual contributions to cases, adding ideas that are consecrated in judgments. He spoke his mind to judges who were rude to lawyers but respected the judicial process.
Asked whether he would be remembered as a lawyer, he said: “No! But every institution depends on renewal. I would like to believe that in difficult times, I was part of the renewal.” Modest to the last, and with an unerring sense of humour! He has written a fictional biography of his mother titled. Talking to Yamraj, an account of returning home from England, some short stories and poems titled, Snippets and a huge amount of unpublished material. “For the moment,” he says, “I’ m still around.”